It is a particularly American contradiction that the thing we should be eating most is the thing most absent from our plates.
Fish and shellfish are today widely recognized by physicians as central to our physical and mental health, and just about every contemporary diet—Paleo, Mediterranean, Atkins, South Beach (take your pick)—recommends seafood as a key animal protein. Heart disease, Alzheimer’s, depression, even low sperm count are all conditions that a fish-based diet may help ameliorate. And by all rights this most healthy of foods should be an American mainstay. The United States controls more ocean than any other country on earth. Our seafood-producing territory covers 2.8 billion acres, more than twice as much real estate as we have set aside for landfood.
But in spite of our billions of acres of ocean, our 94,000 miles of coast, our 3.5 million miles of rivers, around 90 percent of the seafood Americans eat comes from abroad.
Set against the backdrop of the larger American food system, the seafood deficit, is, well, fishy. Many of our most important landfoods are trending in the opposite direction. Corn, anybody? Plenty of it—surpluses of it, in fact. Beef? Enough domestic production to supply every American with around eighty pounds a year—five times the national per capita rate of seafood consumption. Meanwhile, the paucity of domestic fish and shellfish in our markets and in our diets continues even as foreign seafood floods in at a tremendous rate. In the last half century American seafood imports have increased by a staggering 1,476 percent.
It gets fishier still. While around 90 percent of the seafood Americans eat is foreign, a third of the seafood Americans catch gets sold to foreigners. By and large the fish and shellfish we are sending abroad are wild while the seafood we are importing is very often farmed. Two hundred million pounds of wild Alaska salmon, a half billion pounds of pollock, cod, and other fish-and-chips-type species, a half billion pounds of squid, scallops, lobsters, and other shellfish are, every year, being sent abroad, more and more often to Asia; untold tons of omega-3-rich seafood are leaving our shores to help other countries lower their rates of heart disease, raise their cognitive abilities, and lengthen their life expectancy. American consumers suffer from a deficit of American fish, but someone out there somewhere is eating our lunch.
How did we land ourselves in such a confoundingly American catch?
I first began contemplating this question one morning in the summer of 2005. I had recently moved to the far southern end of the island of Manhattan to what the seafaring Dutch had called New Amsterdam but which is now more sterilely christened the Financial District. This lifeless agglomeration of concrete and glass was not at first glance an ideal neighborhood for a writer like me whose subjects are nature and fishing and seafood. But I liked the fact that just on the other side of the skyscrapers the water lay in three directions. I was intrigued that the place where I now made my home was America’s original seaport, the very spot where some of the first American seafood had been landed.
I quickly realized I was deluding myself. For a week I followed the routes that most people traveled in my new neighborhood—up Broadway, past banks and brokerage firms, past the bare asphalt slab called Zuccotti Park. On the site of the New Amsterdam colony, there was now a depressing convergence of fast-food franchises and an oddly duplicative march of bad shoe stores. I stared into the empty pit at Ground Zero and tried uselessly to find some connection to the place like a mariner throwing out an anchor into muddy bottom. The tines found no purchase.
Finally, at the beginning of the second week in my new home, I rose early and set out by bicycle to get a broader feel for this empty-feeling place. Choosing the rising sun as my direction, I turned east, against traffic, at the street that in New Amsterdam days had been called De Maagde Paatje—the Maiden’s Path—so named because it was the chosen route for Dutch girls bringing their washing down to the East River on laundry days. Today known as Maiden Lane, the road brought me to Pearl Street—once Parelstraat—an appellation that derives from the time when it was paved with native oystershell. As I coasted along Pearl, I skirted over landfill that had long ago buried a swatch of salt marsh known in colonial times as Beekman’s Swamp. At Dover Street, I headed east again until I arrived at Water Street. The street once marked the water’s edge, but now after landfill had widened the city considerably Water Street was several blocks from the water.
But just past Water the feel of the neighborhood shifted and the ghost of a former incarnation started to reveal itself. At the corner of Dover I came across a red clapboard building that I later learned was one of the oldest functioning public houses in New York. Beyond this distinctly maritime-looking tavern stood a row of crotchety old buildings, all from the early 1800s. Hazy stenciling could be made out on a few: “Joshua Atkins & Co. Shipchandlers,” “Joseph C. LaRocca & Sons Shellfish & Seafood.” From Dover I went east to Front Street and then tacked south to Peck Slip, a grand plaza in disrepair that petered away and dumped me out onto South Street.
There before me stood a metal warehouse built during the Great Depression. Weeping with water stains, it bore a straightforward, working person’s declaration of purpose on its facade:
FULTON FISH MARKET • CITY OF NEW YORK
DEPARTMENT OF MARKETS
I had happened upon what had been the most storied and voluminous seafood market in the world and nobody seemed to care that it still existed.
Once upon a time, before the island of Manhattan had any physical connection to the mainland, the Fulton Fish Market was the primary point of entry for nearly every piece of seafood New Yorkers ate. Clunky barges, flat-bottomed oyster skiffs, broad-beamed Hudson River sloops all made their way to this weigh station and docked at buildings that were inherently more geared toward the sea than to the land. There, all of this wild product was off-loaded and transformed into forms the public would recognize as usable food for the larder. Oyster shuckers by the dozens queued up in the stretch that is now covered by the FDR Drive. Prehistoric-looking sturgeon, five feet long and armored with weird cartilaginous shields, were stacked like cordwood in the hulls of fishing boats from as far away as Kingston and sold in pearly white chunks as “Albany Beef.” Shad-cutters with the particular skill to convert an intrinsically gristly mess into a smooth boneless fillet worked in the early-morning hours and laid out their product alongside the pinkish sacks of roe, smoked or raw depending on the taste of the client at hand.
New York’s fishing past is not as distant as one might think. As recently as 1929, an edition of the Fishing Gazette reported that a hundred fishermen were registered to live in “the village” of Canarsie in what has now been swallowed whole by the borough of Brooklyn. They all sold at Fulton. In that same report it was noted that Jamaica Bay, where Kennedy Airport now sits, was a “prolific fishing ground for scallops and many terrapin were found along its marshy shores.” Up until the 1920s, enough lobsters and shellfish were taken in Gravesend Bay off Staten Island to satisfy much of the city’s needs. In all, one hundred wholesale fish dealers worked Fulton and sold tens of millions of pounds of fish a year.
The Fulton Market that I found in the year 2005 was of course a different place. Most of that local product was gone, yet it was still a market. Forklifts unloaded boxes of blue crab hauled up from the Chesapeake Bay, their snapping claws and gyrating finlets poking through the crate slats. Elsewhere the new-moon crescent tails of the great pelagic wanderers—the swordfish and the tunas of the open ocean—jutted out over the edges of the cleaning tables. Restaurateurs kibitzed with the dealers jockeying for entire pallets of salmon while the occasional solitary elderly gentleman sidled up to a monger he had long known and came away with a single fillet of sole.
But on the fringes of the market in 2005, another kind of transaction was starting to rule the day. Here and there a few of the old buildings that formerly had housed smokehouses and salters and chandleries were getting a makeover. The newly mullioned window sashes and smooth-poured concrete stoops spoke of an occupation forthcoming that had nothing to do with the price of summer flounder. This was good waterfront real estate with all the old-timey trappings that make gentrifiers happy. Looked at from a developer’s angle, the Fulton Fish Market, with its blood, guts, and racket, stuck out like a smelly thumb. It had become despised and distrusted by the police and the health department alike. Every city ordinance it could violate it had violated. If you didn’t have a feel for fish, the whole thing seemed a terrible mess. No wonder the city wanted it gone.
But I didn’t want it gone. As I looked across the melee, my heart rose. Maybe my new neighborhood wasn’t so bad after all.
My next visit to Fulton was part of a larger reconnaissance mission, a circumnavigation of the entire island of Manhattan. Setting out north, I rode up along the new Hudson River Park, a park that owes its very existence to fish. A multilane highway called Westway would have been built in the park’s place had scientists not discovered striped bass juveniles in the rotting piers of the West Side and demanded the then recently formed Environmental Protection Agency carry out one of the nation’s very first environmental impact statements, which would eventually halt Westway in its tracks. At the Hudson River Park’s terminus I pushed my bike through the untended trails of Inwood Hill Park, and then picked up the route again through Manhattan’s last remaining salt marsh. I then headed down the East River, excited to take another look at the Fulton Market at the end of my journey. But when I finally ducked under the triple necklaces of the Williamsburg, Manhattan, and Brooklyn Bridges, there was nothing to be found—no more banter, no more scales and guts sloughing off into the gutters. The Fulton Fish Market was gone.
In the time since I’d last been to Fulton, the city had finalized its deal with the fishmongers and ordered the market’s full-scale relocation to a far distant outpost in the Bronx. The island of Manhattan, which had once been home to dozens of waterfront markets, now had none at all. As part of the deal, all the fishmongers were required to sign a new market lease that included a pledge that they would never return to these premises and sell fish, ever again.
Few New Yorkers were upset by Fulton’s departure. It seemed unsurprising that an old, dirty market had been pushed out by white-collar commerce, much in the same way that French city fathers ripped the old Les Halles market from the heart of Paris. But looked at more closely, Fulton’s departure can be seen as a sign of a much bigger shift. In fact, it marked the end of a twenty-year transition beginning roughly in the early 1980s during which fish markets and individual fishmongers went from controlling 65 percent of the seafood trade to holding on to just 11 percent. Supermarkets, meanwhile, went from selling 16 percent of our seafood to selling 86 percent. Not coincidentally, it was during this same time period that the United States confirmed its status as a seafood debtor nation.
In 2005, the year of Fulton’s closure, seafood imports topped five billion pounds for the first time—double what we had imported two decades earlier. All the while as foreign seafood poured into our country, our American-born fish and shellfish were leaking out the back door. From 1985 to 2005, the same period during which our seafood imports doubled, our seafood exports more than quadrupled. Increasingly, what Americans eat from the sea has less and less to do with their own shores.
But the United States remains a nation of coasts, of oysters and shrimp and salmon and halibut the size of barn doors and bluefin tuna that swim faster than battleships. A nation where nearly half the population chooses to live less than ten miles from the sea. So what is keeping us from eating from our local waters?
The answer lies in an intricate interplay of ecology, economics, politics, and taste. In one sense it is a story that resembles many in our country during the last quarter century, a story of a self-inflicted destruction of domestic production followed by a reckless and giddy outsourcing to Asia. But with seafood we are talking about a delete-and-replace of something infinitely more precious and ultimately irrecoverable. With seafood we are talking about the destruction and outsourcing of the very ecology that underpins the health of our coasts and our bodies.
This process reveals itself most clearly through three iconic American local seafoods: Eastern oysters, Gulf shrimp, and Alaska salmon. Each fishery is representative of a specific American seafood era, and together they offer a view into the mistakes of our past, the complications of our present, and the hopes for our future.
The story of the Eastern oyster is a chronicle of the destruction of one of our greatest wild foods and one of the key pieces of biological infrastructure that allowed America’s seafood abundance to exist in the first place. Up until the end of the nineteenth century, oysters were a ubiquitous presence along the East Coast, both on our menus and in our estuaries. They created a taste for the local ocean and a local habitat for the fish that swam at our doorstep. But beginning in the early twentieth century, the interdependence of Americans and oysters started to fail. This was particularly notable in what was once the heartland of American oysters: New York City. In just a few decades New York went from a place where New Yorkers consumed nearly all of their oysters from local waters to a place where local oysters were associated with the worst kinds of food-borne illnesses. Once oysters ceased to be a local food source, New York City waters became a pollution free-for-all, with effluent continuing to pour into its bays and inlets largely unchecked until the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972. Today, despite measurably cleaner waters, the Eastern oyster remains severely depleted and the country’s entire oyster industry hovers at a mere 14 percent of what it had been at its peak in the early 1900s. This despite the best efforts of conservationists and oystermen committed to rebuilding the lost American oyster kingdom. The challenges oyster restorers face today prove just how difficult it is to rebuild a seafood system that has been destroyed, and impresses upon us the imperative to preserve the intact seafood systems that we still have.
Gulf shrimp reveal the quandaries of our immediate seafood present and the complexities of the modern global seafood marketplace. Unlike the Eastern oyster, which has declined by 80 percent since colonization, the several species of wild Gulf shrimp are still with us in great numbers. But the ramping up of the American shrimp appetite has caused us to completely remake our seafood economy. Over the course of the last fifty years Americans came to eat more shrimp than any other seafood by a substantial margin. Shrimp has become so popular that even the seemingly boundless productivity of the vast marshes of the Mississippi River delta have come up short. It was this bottomless American appetite for shrimp that caused us to start looking beyond our shores for seafood and in turn compelled marine scientists around the world to try to domesticate shrimp. And it is because of this shrimp domestication project that Americans today are able to cheaply consume almost as much shrimp per capita as the next two most popular American seafoods—salmon and tuna—combined. But as I learned when I traveled to Southeast Asia’s churning shrimp farms, this transition from wild to farmed has come at considerable environmental and societal cost. In becoming Asia’s premier market for shrimp, the United States has effectively unhitched itself from its own seafood supplies and hollowed out its ability and rationale to protect its own marine resources.
Lastly, the sockeye salmon of Alaska’s Bristol Bay tell the story of the fights that lie ahead if we are to protect America’s seafood future. The Bristol Bay sockeye salmon grounds are an untrammeled latticework of rivers, ponds, and lakes that can generate more than two hundred million pounds of fish per year. In spite of that seafood wealth, Alaska’s leadership is seriously contemplating the permitting of Pebble Mine, a venture that would be the largest copper and gold mine in North America. If built, Pebble Mine would be the largest open pit mine in North America placed in dangerous proximity to the most valuable salmon fishery in the world. Saving Bristol Bay from this development requires that we recognize the importance of the sockeye salmon fishery that is endemic to the place. But while the fishery is critical to the fishermen who catch it, Americans outside of Alaska are only now starting to be aware that it even exists. The disturbing truth is that 79 percent of Alaska salmon is exported, more and more frequently to Asia. Meanwhile, two-thirds of the salmon that Americans do eat is farmed and comes to us from abroad. This disconnect is a considerable obstacle to the fishermen and environmentalists working to stop Pebble Mine: without valuing Bristol Bay as a food source, it’s impossible to understand why it requires our defense.
But lest this book read simply as a litany of doom and destruction, it’s important to point out that America, like a great ship that has been off course for so long, is ever so slowly coming about in the right direction. Forty years ago the Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments aka the Clean Water Act of 1972 sought to end the degradation of our estuaries, prosecute the polluters of our waterways, and protect this country’s most vital seafood grounds from industrial development. Boldly it stated that it would “restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.” From the Clean Water Act sprang a great flood of ideas and hopes that has affected every piece of seafood we eat and even the seafood we don’t.
Through the act’s requirement for cleaner water, the recovery of the Eastern oyster has become a stated goal of municipalities around the United States, even in estuaries as polluted as New York Harbor. A single oyster is capable of filtering up to fifty gallons of water per day—a fact that is not lost on state regulators. Indeed, more and more, oysters and clean water are being linked in the minds of policy makers, and this linkage could create a positive feedback loop that leads not only to cleaner water but to greater supplies of other seafood. It could even lead toward a sounder ecological approach to coastal protection in the face of sea level rise and ever more frequently occurring superstorms.
In the Gulf, the Clean Water Act has the potential to help repair a century’s worth of damage the oil industry has visited on the shrimp heartland of the Mississippi delta. After spilling more than two hundred million gallons of oil into the shrimp-rearing grounds of Louisiana during the Deepwater Horizon disaster, BP could be liable for billions of dollars in Clean Water Act fines and penalties. Properly applied, those funds could pay for the restoration of the Gulf’s seafood heart and lungs: the extensive Louisiana marshes where 75 percent of the northern Gulf’s seafood is born. Coupled with a growing seafood relocalization movement launched by bayou shrimpers, shrimp could end up being the motivation for saving the Gulf’s marine ecosystems.
In Alaska’s Bristol Bay, the Clean Water Act could gird those fantastically productive salmon grounds in a permanent defense against harmful industrial development. We have a chance to forever protect Bristol Bay, America’s wild salmon epicenter, from becoming the site for a storage facility for billions of tons of mining tailings. Of all the fish fights that threaten our local seafood, nothing is bigger than the fight over Bristol Bay and Pebble Mine. Thanks to an unprecedented banding together of commercial fishermen, sport fishermen, conservationists, and chefs, the Pebble Mine fight might just be a fight that, for once, the fish will win.
But the future of the American catch depends not only on American governance, but also on the behavior of American consumers. There is no more intimate relationship we can have with our environment than to eat from it. Over the course of the last hundred years that intimacy has been lost, and with it our pathway to the most healthful of American foods. It is, in my opinion, our obligation to reclaim this intimacy and build a bridge from the plate back to the estuary. This requires us not just to eat local seafood. It requires the establishment of a working relationship with salt marshes, oyster beds, the natural flow of water from river to sea, and the integrity of the ocean floor. It means, in short, setting a new course that makes seafood not only central to personal health but critical to the larger health of the nation.
In heading out across the waters of my home city, my home coasts, and my home country, and in telling about that journey, I’m hoping I might be able to convey how such a course might be set, to find the bases for our nation’s broken relationship with its own ocean, and to understand finally how that breach might be mended.
THE FIRST BREACH
There are two kinds of oysters in New York City today: the kind that you can eat and the kind that you cannot.
The first, edible kind are found in restaurants and raw bars, high-end grocery stores, and the few remaining markets that still specialize in fresh seafood. They are nearly always farmed and come to New Yorkers from a minimum of thirty miles away and usually from much farther, sometimes from clear across the country.
The second kind of oysters, the ones you cannot eat, are wild and live in New York City waters, within the thirty-mile blast zone of oyster destruction that now defines much of the metropolitan area’s waters. These oysters, all of the single species Crassostrea virginica, are polluted, diseased, and staggeringly reduced from their former numbers.
And yet up until relatively recently there was no difference between the first kind of oyster and the second. As late as the 1920s a local New York City oyster was the oyster that you ate. As Mark Kurlansky noted in his oyster-centric history of New York, The Big Oyster, up until the 1920s, the average New Yorker ate annually as many as six hundred local oysters as part of a locally sourced seafood diet of more than thirty-six pounds of fish and shellfish a year—more than double the current per capita level of American seafood consumption. New York oysters were so common as to be considered a poor man’s food, priced at less than a penny apiece. If you happened to be wandering around lower Manhattan before the 1920s and were on a particularly tight budget, you could stop in at one of the many oyster saloons and purchase the “Canal Street Plan”—all the local oysters you could eat for a sixpence. And even though they were very cheap, cheapness alone does not explain their appeal. In the mid-1800s the average New Yorker spent more on oysters than on butcher meat.
In Search of Lost Oysters
On a recent July morning I donned a wetsuit, flippers, and an air tank and prepared to go scuba diving in New York City waters, in search of that second kind of New York oyster: the creature that was once the most local seafood of all, but that today is illegal to eat.
My dive was to take place at the very edge of the oyster blast zone in the last place in New York City that supported a local oyster industry. Known as Jamaica Bay, it was a tidal estuary straddling Brooklyn and Queens and bordered by the John F. Kennedy Airport. Around me, also wearing wetsuits, were a dozen inner-city high school kids from a newly formed institution called the Urban Assembly New York Harbor School. Also joining us were members of the city’s leading marine nonprofit, NY/NJ Baykeeper, an organization whose mission is “to protect, preserve, and restore the ecological integrity and productivity of the Hudson-Raritan Estuary”—in other words, to make the wetlands and waters upon which New York City sits ecologically whole again. All of us had our own motivations for exposing ourselves to the hazards of scuba diving in a bay ringed by four sewage treatment plants and scores of industrial polluters. The Harbor School students and Baykeeper were there as part of a consortium of organizations that had just gotten approval to begin large-scale restoration of oysters to the New York side of the New York Bight. I was trying to find the root causes of the decline of local American seafood. And if we were to actually find a New York City oyster on this dive, it would inform our research, help us determine what was salvageable, and give us insight into what the future of the New York oyster might be.
Standing in the broiling heat on a litter-strewn beach on the edge of a now defunct airstrip called Floyd Bennett Field, we paired off with diving buddies. Mine would be César Gutierrez, a sixteen-year-old Bushwick native with yard-long curly hair pulled back in an explosive curly ponytail. Once we were suited up, the Harbor School dive instructor, a woman named Liv Dillon, handed me a compass, a measuring tape, and a knife.
“Do I have to take the knife?” I asked.
“Nah,” said Liv. “But there’s just a ton of crap down there, and if you get tangled up, César is going to have to cut you out.”
I looked at César, who smiled and shrugged his shoulders.
Shuffling down the beach backward so as not to stumble over our flippers, César and I held on to each other by the wrist and entered the bath-warm water. To our left was the outflow of Mill Creek, one of the few remaining streams that still feeds directly into Jamaica Bay. Tidal river mouths are the favored place for oysters—the primary reason that greater New York once had among the biggest oyster beds in the world. Gotham is in fact one huge estuary. The city’s many crenulated bays with variable water flow, the trickling of dozens of distributaries scattered over three hundred square miles, are what oysters love most. Once upon a time each little outflow had its own salinity and its own specific oyster taste. If land foodies rave about terroir, the qualities a particular place’s soil gives to the tang of a local fruit or vegetable, oyster aficionados claim a merroir—the taste of home harbors carried in the watertight packaging of an oyster’s twin shells. It used to be the case that you could actually taste the flavor of your New York neighborhood when you ate an oyster. Today most of the creeks of the Hudson-Raritan estuary have been interrupted, paved over, and rerouted underground, through the sewer system or trickling out along subway lines. Very little natural interplay occurs between rivers and tides today—one reason oysters have faded from New York waters.
Nevertheless, César and I were determined to find an oyster. Our mission was to measure out a twenty-meter line perpendicular to the shore and then work our way along the transect looking for oysters on either side. “Don’t use your flippers too much down there,” Liv had told us. “You’ll just muck up the water. Go down there, establish neutral buoyancy, and just do this—” Here she crooked her index finger into a “C” shape. “That’s all you’ll need. Just pull yourself along the bottom slowly with your finger and look for the oysters.”
Bobbing in the water now, we held the hoses of our buoyancy compensators above our heads and emptied our vests of air. I felt more than a slight panic as my weight belt pulled me down—something of the feeling Persephone might have had when dragged by Hades into the underworld. All scuba diving is a little claustrophobia inducing, even a dive in the crystal clear Caribbean Sea, where visibility is usually at least twenty or thirty feet. But here in New York City, as the glow from the surface faded and we reached the bay’s bottom, the world closed in around me in a dark and unsettling way. In all, we could see only about eighteen inches ahead. I was surprised when César began executing our appointed tasks without hesitation. But these were his home waters, the place he’d learned to scuba dive, and eighteen inches of visibility was perfectly normal for him. He swam forward and planted the anchoring stake of the transect. Then we cruised on at an angle along the slope of the bottom, pulling out tape as we advanced. At eight feet of depth, visibility dropped to about a foot. I clenched César’s wrist harder. Down and down we went, ultimately reaching a point of complete darkness.
Had large numbers of oysters been in place in Jamaica Bay as they once had been, the quality of the water would have likely been noticeably different. Oysters here at the mouth of Mill Creek would have dealt with a lot of this murk. River and creek mouths are so favored by oysters because the murk they carry is actually micro-algae—swarms of phytoplankton thriving on the nitrogen- and phosphorous-based wastes brought down from the land upstream. When these nutrients enter a bay, they fertilize the water and promote phytoplankton blooms. This phytoplankton is the oyster’s principal food. Too much of it and the water will become choked and life will slip away. But when oysters are present, they gobble the phytoplankton down, cleaning and clearing the water in the process. A single oyster will filter as much as fifty gallons of water a day. Multiply that by several trillion—the historical oyster population of greater New York—and you can understand why the visibility in New York waters was once much better.
On we swam, past beer cans and tangles of fishing line and the occasional used condom. Had generations of our fellow New Yorkers been a little less abusive of our marine environment and instead allowed oysters to thrive, stands of eelgrass would have concealed all this trash. When a healthy oyster population filters and clears the water, sunlight is able to penetrate into the depths, in turn spurring the growth of several species of amphibious grass. This partnership of oyster and grasses turns out to be a foundational element of bountiful seafood in estuary environments. Oysters and marsh grasses stabilize the shoreline and create protective pockets of shallow water—essential for the sensitive lives of juvenile fish. This biological arrangement is known as a salt marsh, and its importance cannot be overstated. Salt marshes produce more basic food energy per acre than any other known ecosystem in the world—even more than tropical rainforests. They sequester more carbon than any other known ecosystem and can absorb as much as a foot of tidal storm surge. But where salt marshes really are worth their salt is in seafood production. Three-quarters of all the commercial fish species we eat rely on salt marshes for all or part of their life cycles. So it is in large part because of the oyster and the salt marshes they enabled that Dutch settlers arriving in New Amsterdam in the seventeenth century found vast schools of fish in New York waters.
And New York was not alone in this kind of biological configuration. Had César and I been swimming in the waters of any other Atlantic coastal city precursor before European settlement, we would have found the same abundant marsh systems. But nearly every time European colonists found a salt marsh, they would build a town, overharvest the oyster reefs, drain the wetlands, and fill in what remained. Even George Washington got in on the salt marsh draining game. In the late eighteenth century he formed a company to drain the mid-Atlantic salt marsh called by early colonists, rather indicatively, the Great Dismal Swamp. Today, as a result of all that draining, wild oyster reefs rank among the most endangered ecosystems in America, with 80 percent of the wild reefs now gone. Along with them have also gone the fish-producing salt marshes. By some estimates, the United States has lost 70 percent of its historical salt marsh, much of it in the last fifty years. Is it any wonder that the American catch is impaired by so much loss?
And so as César and I cruised through the water of Jamaica Bay, I saw nary a fish. Though Liv Dillon would later tell me that local divers like César, more accustomed to the water’s low visibility, would probably have seen much more life, it was clear that Jamaica Bay was not the thriving fish nursery it once was. Remembering Liv’s instructions, I flattened out my body and put a little air in my flotation vest. When I had achieved neutral buoyancy, I started pulling myself along the bottom with my left index finger. Slowly the water cleared enough for me to make out perhaps five inches of distance ahead. I groped along the bottom. It was mucky and cold and completely devoid of any recognizable structure. A flat, deserted plain.
Had there been oyster reefs of the kind that once paved more than four hundred thousand acres of New York’s waters, the physical geography of the place would have been radically different and we would have scarcely been able to find a free patch of mud to plant our fingers. In addition to shoreside salt marshes, oysters that are farther out from land build reefs—a physical-biological infrastructure that is tremendously important for seafood. One of the reasons oysters are able to do this is their incredible fecundity. A single female oyster can produce up to one hundred million eggs. A salmon, by comparison, lays only about three thousand to ten thousand. Indeed, in the New York Bight of the past, in early summer, when oysters spawned, the waters probably at times would have had a milky cast, a living tide of embryos.
Only a few hours after being fertilized, oyster larvae become free-swimming “veligers” journeying in the water column until they detect, among other environmental signs, a chemically basic signal. When they get this signal they drop bottomward, find something good to attach to, and seal their fate for the rest of their lives. The clearest chemically basic signal for an oyster comes from old oystershell. And so once the first New York oysters established a layer on the seafloor, oyster begot oyster. Shell, or “cultch,” as oystermen call it, is the foundation upon which natural oyster reefs form. Layer by layer the reef builds vertically, each new oyster generation building upon the last. No other bivalve builds in three dimensions with such architectural zeal. The closest thing to what an oyster builds is a coral reef—in fact, oyster reefs serve a very similar environmental function to coral. Just as tropical coral reefs create three-dimensional homes for swarms of brightly colored fish popular in home aquariums, oysters build reefs in temperate waters, creating homes for the kinds of fish we so treasure on our plates. According to some studies, the presence of an oyster reef can more than double the number of fish a given area of water can support.
Oyster reefs’ fish-supporting capacity is complemented by the fact that sometimes oysters build such high reefs that they create protected slack water in their wakes—also ideal for fish nurseries. New York’s Ellis and Liberty Islands are in fact pieces in a partly oyster-formed puzzle that stretched from Red Hook in Brooklyn a quarter mile out to sea across what is known as the Bay Ridge Flats. To some degree this was a natural seawall that was a first line of defense for Manhattan against storms as fierce or fiercer than 2012’s Hurricane Sandy. If it is difficult to imagine oysters actually forming islands, consider the timescale: Oysters in a wild environment reach maturity at about three years, after which they spawn and generate young that will in turn form another layer of oysters. Repeat this process over the course of thousands of years, and the vertical accretion is considerable.
But beginning with the arrival of the first Dutch settlers in the 1600s, the oyster reefs of New York were mined out at progressively faster rates. And after the oysters were eaten, the shells were not returned to the sea. Primarily they were burned down and used as lime—a key component of mortar. Ironically, this mortar was at times used to help build sheer vertical seawalls at the ocean’s edge—an environment that oysters find considerably more difficult to colonize than the gradual, crenulated slopes of the primeval Manhattan waterfront. In this way, oysters were used against themselves—melted down and recast as barriers to their own existence.
As César and I swam, we saw none of that old reef system. But the bottom was not entirely lifeless. I continued to drag myself along, one finger pull at a time. At a certain point, my finger started to hit something hard every time I advanced it. Pausing for a moment, I dug in excitedly, thinking that I had perhaps finally lighted upon a wild oyster. But it was another creature that I found—a hard-shell quahog clam six inches across. I inched myself farther again. Another huge clam. I inched again. Still another clam. The bottom of Jamaica Bay was literally paved with clams, all of them rendered entirely inedible by the last two centuries’ pollution.
In spite of a growing sewage problem and all the damage wild oyster reefs suffered in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, oysters persisted as a local food source throughout the New York metropolitan area into the twentieth century mostly because humans decided to enter into a partnership with them. Overharvesting seriously reduced wild reefs by the 1820s, so from that time forward ambitious oyster entrepreneurs began importing juvenile “seed” oysters from still functioning wild beds in Long Island Sound, Delaware Bay, and Chesapeake Bay. By doing so they established a very profitable oyster-farming industry. They did this even though sewage increased exponentially through the nineteenth century into the twentieth. John Waldman, in his juicy, almost pungent biological biography of New York Harbor, Heartbeats in the Muck, noted that by 1910 six hundred million gallons a day of raw sewage were going into New York waterways. “Much of the bottom was covered with sludge,” Waldman writes, “black in color from sulfide of iron; oxygenless; its fermentation generating carbonic acid and ammonia waste; and putrefying continuously, giving bubbles of methane gas.” Furthermore, Waldman found that if you overlay on a map the areas where New York City historically dumped its raw sewage with the historical locations of its oyster beds, you would find that one had more or less replaced the other. The only surviving wild oyster beds in New York are those that escaped being buried under our muck.
Even so, the oyster industry in New York thrived. A study of New York City menus from the nineteenth century commissioned by the Wildlife Conservation Society found that the presence of oysters in New York restaurants rose continually from the 1860s through the early 1900s. By 1910 New York City produced 1.4 billion oysters a year. This despite the fact that New Yorkers were increasingly getting sick by eating them.
At the turn of the last century, scientists were only beginning to make the connection between water pollution, oysters, and illness. Dead Horse Bay, across from where we were now scuba diving, was so named because it was used as a burial grounds for old carriage horse carcasses after what could be salvaged had been turned into fertilizer and hoof gelatin. But that didn’t stop anyone from farming oysters in that very same bay. In fact, as oyster grounds closer to Manhattan became more and more polluted, Jamaica Bay on the city’s fringes grew to be one of New York’s largest and most consistent sources of oysters until the 1920s. It was only when public health officials finally began tracing the origins of the era’s major epidemics to oysters that the metropolitan bivalve started to lose its footing.
As the city grew and befouled itself, a primeval suspicion of the dangers of eating oysters came to be clarified by science. In 1854 the Italian scientist Filippo Pacini first discovered the bacillus bacteria that caused Vibrio cholera. In the 1890s a similar connection was made between bacteria and typhoid. Both of these bacterial diseases along with hepatitis A and B were found to be present in oysters in polluted waters. And as wave after wave of epidemics swept through New York City in the early twentieth century, oysters increasingly became identified as the vector for those diseases.
As the United States increasingly centralized regulatory power within the federal government, Washington started to take notice of what had formerly been a local health issue, taking particular note of oysters. In 1906 the federal Pure Food and Drug Act was passed, empowering a federal agency for the first time to restrict the interstate commerce of foods. Up until then, New York oysters had been a major export product. In fact, New York oysters were, in a way, the original exported packaged food. In the times before plastic, an oyster’s naturally watertight shell served as a kind of biological shrink-wrap. They were shipped live across the country and even across the Atlantic to that other estuary city, London, which itself had also once had a lot of oysters but by the 1900s had very few. By 1896 New York was shipping a hundred thousand barrels of oysters a year to England.
But the seafood export life of the Gotham oyster was finally to come to an end in the twentieth century. A Chicago politician ate New York oysters and promptly died. Eventually the New York oyster found itself under the Pure Food and Drug Act’s jurisdiction. No more New York oysters were to be sold out of state. And soon after that, no more New York oysters were to be sold at all. Since no one could figure out how to make New York oysters safe or how to halt the flow of six hundred million gallons of raw sewage a day into New York waterways, health officials took the only action they knew would work. In 1921 they shut the Jamaica Bay oyster beds down. It was at that time that one of the first hints of replacing a domestic source of seafood with a foreign one was floated. “The stoppage of this supply of shellfish,” New York’s health commissioner Royal S. Copeland told the New York Times upon the beds’ closure, “may mean that a supply must be imported either from Canada or from France to make up the deficiency.”
With scant money and poor science to mitigate the effects of oyster pollution, it was easier to get rid of the oysters altogether than it was to combat the contaminants. And the mass closures of shellfish beds were to become commonplace throughout the coastal Atlantic. The same survey of New York menus that found a progressive growth of oyster dishes in restaurants from the 1860s through the 1910s shows a dramatic drop-off of oysters from the 1920s through the 1950s. By the 1960s very few Americans were eating any oysters at all. The industry followed suit. By the 1970s American oyster production had plummeted to a mere 1 percent of its 1910 peak.